Vivian Maier’s Junk Shop Photograph (New York, 1954) and a Plea for Urban Treasure Hunts

Vivian Maier might be the greatest visual arts discovery in recent years. Her immense body of urban street photography began to surface in 2007 after author John Maloof first found sections of it during a minor auction in Chicago. Maier’s pictures have since become the centre of exhibitions, media coverage, and the Oscar-nominated documentary film Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof / Charlie Siskel, USA, 2013) that takes us on Maloof’s journey of retracing who Maier was.[1]

Maier’s repository includes the 1954 photograph of a New York junk shop interior and its presumed owner.[2] The viewer can tell that it is a junk shop by the characteristic arrangement of objects in space (or lack thereof). Retail stores selling new wares physically partition off product displays from areas for customer movement by means of counters, aisles, and shelves. Such spatial orchestration guarantees that the product does not encounter unnecessary contact with passing, disinterested customers and that it is left as untouched as possible for purchase. In these stores, you shop with your eyes before you buy with your hands. The interior space in Maier’s photograph foregoes this physical separation. Items in second-hand and junk shops have by definition passed through other hands. The junk shop’s deliberate negation of conventional shopping choreography imparts two messages: first, the objects are used, show traces of that usage, and are thus cheaper than new wares. Second, and more significantly, this room is a larger-than-life treasure trove abounding in lived history. The product display invites us to enter and embark on a spatial, tactile, and emotional treasure hunt. You have to be right in the middle of the items, move through them with your body and hands. You cannot shop with your eyes by throwing a glance inside from the secluded vantage point at the entrance since you cannot see what treasures are hidden under the piles of objects. The photograph offers a perspective from this very viewpoint in, or close to, the entrance area. Visual representation doubles the shop’s spatial invitation to an exploration rich in effort and surprising rewards. The junk shop image operates as a synecdoche for how Maier’s own discoverer and, thanks to him and recently his film, the rest of the world have come to access her vast photographic treasure trove. Therefore, the picture offers an entry point for exploring Maier’s larger body of work.

The owner, or vendor, in the photograph is seated in front of the main bulk of items, to the right of the frame but nevertheless prominent in the photograph. He is the gate keeper, the treasurer, of this repository. He does not block the entrance but the visitor has to pass by him first. Looking straight into the camera, his gaze is as rich as it is ambiguous. It is proud and challenges the visitor entering the owner’s handmade realm. The traces of dirt on his pants suggest that he has put physical effort into the store. The way the assortment is presently assembled is the result of his work which enables and shapes the customers’ subsequent experiences. At the same time, his face and hands are tense, betraying that he is unaccustomed to the camera’s attention. This interplay of emotions reflected in the vendor’s physical appearance endows the image and the space it portrays with a sense of honesty. This is no advertisement. The shop is what it is. You yourselves have to value the products.

The notions of a treasure chest and treasurer leave us with the question of what the treasure, or junk, of 1954 might be. The photograph displays lamp shades and light bulbs, frames and furniture. These objects are less ephemeral in their materiality than in their trendiness. The junk shop picture illustrates that, when urban fashion changes, the entire city does not immediately change with it. Commodities might vanish from the major retail stores but they are relayed to other spaces in the cityscape. This shift system calls for the treasure hunt on an urban scale. You cannot find outmoded objects in any of the interchangeable department stores and you might have to search through many of the different, dispersed junk stores to find an item comparable to what you had in mind. But you are likely to find many unexpected pieces of day-to-day history along the way. The story that this photograph evokes, along with the meta-story of Maier’s oeuvre, invites us to think about the logistics of urban treasure hunting.


[1] The information is based on: Vivian Maier (John Maloof / Charlie Siskel, USA, 2013);